Tag Archives: social movements

Crash test dummies and movement building

Do you ever feel you’re strapped into a car that almost deliberately, wilfully, crashes into a wall? Sort of a Groundhog Day/Source Code mash-up, with Camus ruefully driving a Facel Vega and getting hit by a boulder that some clown had let roll down a hill?

I do.

It’s like we in the ‘social movement activism’ game are crash test dummies – and this song, which is all about arbitrary and inescapable pain –

has a hidden (source) code in its title,  that actually stands for  Mitigation mismanaged – mobilisation murders movement-building – Moments mostly muffed –   Misery mounts momentously.

Where did this come from?

Well, partly from hearing Professor Kevin Anderson do the same speech two weeks apart (I don’t mind, it’s a corker of a speech).  It’s about the pending ecological debacle  and it has this line about how “we” have tried everything else – offsetting, emissions trading, promises of carbon capture and storage- instead of, you know mitigation, and might it not be a good idea to actually try mitigation [FWIW, I think that ship has sailed].

Well, for me at least it’s the same with the various hype cycles of social movement/environmental activism over the past 10 years (actually, a lot longer, if you take in the roads protests morphing into GM crop morphing into Anti-Capitalism (man) from 1996 to 2001.) There were camps, marches, legal processes, tensions between the various perspectives (liberal reformist, state socialist, smash the state anarchism) and endlessly repeated (photocopied? Ctrl C + Ved?) proclamations of the urgent need to Movement Build.  And the answer was never to take a close look at why previous efforts had failed, why so few new faces at meetings/events/camps/marches came back for seconds – or if they did, came back for thirds.  Nope, it was always an emotathonic call for Another Big Event.


And wheels on the movement go round and round.  Until they fall off. Again.

Don’t get me wrong – a lot of people have put a lot of brain and muscle power into these things, sincerely believing it was a contribution to a better world.  (I’m talking about offsetting, emissions trading, CCS; the same goes for the Occupies, the camps, the rallies and marches.)

But these are all the appearance of movement-building, they are actually mostly mobilisation. The two can overlap, but they can also be in opposition to each other.

Might it not be a good idea to actually try movement-building [FWIW, I think that ship has sailed].

  • What is there for the person who doesn’t want to/cannot come to the next meeting/march/whatever?
  • Who can’t afford (in any sense) to get arrested?
  • Who is bored by being ego-fodder?
  • Who has some skills and wants others?
  • et. cet. er. a.

And yet it moves:  Social movements for/against institutional change

So, the latest symposium is almost here.  The three papers under discussion are –

Schneiberg, M. and Lounsbury, M., 2008, Social movements and institutional analysis, in: Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Andersen, S.K. and Suddaby, R. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, CA: Sage, 650-672

Lounsbury, M., Ventresca, M., and Hirsch, P.M., 2003, ‘Social movements, field frames and industry emergence: A cultural-political perspective on US recycling’, Socio-Economic Review, 1(1): 71-104

Schurman, R., 2004, ‘Fighting ‘frankenfoods’: Industry opportunity structures and the efficacy of the anti-biotech movement in western Europe’, Social Problems, 51, 243-268

Imma take each in turn, and try to say something useful (cough, cough) about each.


Lounsbury et al (2003) look at how recycling became big business twenty plus years after social and environmental activists started doing it.

They’re really good on the “erosion and recombination of the elements in the then standard resource recovery frame” (p 73) – how the arguments about what counted as proper recycling (as opposed to incineration-and-getting-energy (a real concern in the late 70s, given the talk of ‘energy independence’ for the US.

This is a battle for whose stories make the most sense to (enough of) the right people, within what they call ‘field frames’.

‘Field frames emerge as a result of efforts by producers, trade associations, professions and government actors to make sense of practices and define norms of appropriateness. Field frames are forged [what an appropriate word!!] , maintained and eroded through discourse in policy forums such as Congressional hearings as well  as in industry media and events such as trade association annual meetings.”

(Lounsbury et al. 2003: 77)

Their methodology is one I had better pinch – interviews and close attention to trade journals and what does and does not get discussed (you always have to listen for the silences in this game).

The ‘failure’ of ‘many early experiments with non-profit, volunteer recycling’ (p.83) is unsurprising, given the difficulties in maintaining volunteer projects, apathy/loss of momentum and the actions of incumbents. And they could have added that anything that doesn’t go with the grain of capital accumulation (and neoliberalism’s latest needs – see Mirowski et al, 2013) is going to be attacked.

Basically, the industry managed to frame recycling as about solid waste retrieval (p 84-5), in the same way the US auto industry was able to frame car safety as about driver behaviour, roads, and enforcement of rules (rather than their death-trap cars, unsafe at any speed).

And municipal officials are fonder of dealing with Big Business – get all contracts sorted in one go, and might even get a nice non-executive directorship or three once you’ve ‘retired’ – more than those smelly grassroots types will ever be able to offer.  And

As Paul Kelly, administrative director of the Illinois Recycling Association said, ‘my gut feeling is that municipalities don’t want to deal with an advocate as a contractor’. (p 95)

There’s good stuff on what is now called ‘field configuring events’ – (bottom page 88) and on  focussing events (the Mobro 4000 and the EPA’s 1989 publication ‘The Solid Waste Dilemma’)

And the concluding questions are good

Does institutional change merely involve a reconfiguration of elite resources, or do social movements offer any possibilities for altering cultural conceptions of privilege. Another important question that should be investigated has to do with the relationship between contentious and routine politics and the study of social movement outcomes. Do institutional challenges by disenfranchised groups merely dissipate or get co-opted, or do they lead to successful reformist social movement organizations?
(Lounsbury et al. 2003: 97)

The answer to both is surely ‘depends’.  What is clear is that the incumbents are becoming extremely good at defending the neoliberal state from popular pressures.  I mean, really REALLY good at it.

The take home – there is a treadmill of production, and it will eat ecological modernisation for breakfast.  We’re toast.

Surprisingly absent from the bibliography-

Hoffman (1999)  – on the US chemical industry’s responses to environmental activism) and Yoffie (1988) – on how trade associations learn to play the game.

Usefulness for my thesis: The way support for an “existing”/incumbent industry can crowd out the alternative.

Articles I should read

Brulle, R. JL (2000) Agency, Democracy, and Nature, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Campbell, J.L. and Pederson, O.K (2001) The Rise of Neoliberalism and Institutional Analysis, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Davis, G. F. and Thompson, T. 91994) A Social Movement Perspective on Corporate Control Administrative Science Quarterly, 39, 141-173

Davis, G.F. and McAdam, D. (2000) Corporations, Classes and Social Movements after Managerialism Research in Organizational Behaviour 22, 195-238.

DiMaggio, PJ and Powell WW (1983) The Iron Cage Revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields American Sociological Review, 48, 147-60.

Mohr, J and Duquenne, V. (1997) The Duality of Culture and Practice: Poverty Relief in New York City, 1888-1971 Theory and Society, 26, 305-56.


Scheiber and Lounsbury (2008) do one of those incredibly useful overview-y things, which you probably need to read three or four times during the course of your (early) career to fully ‘get’.

The “chapter focuses on how engaging collective mobilization and social movement theory has inspired new work in institutional analysis.” (Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:649)

The writing is academic (doh!  This is an academic publication), but imho clear nonetheless –

This bit is on how change happens – from top down or bottom up.

Consider two canonical formulations in neo-institutional analysis. In the two-stage model of institutionalization, the emergence of new paths or fields is a ‘bottom up’ phenomenon: (1) organizations or states adopt structures or policies in response to local problems, politics or characteristics, which then spark (2) processes of mimesis, theorization and diffusion, eventually crystallizing a broader community of practice around a core set of principles or models…..

Both models shed light on key institutional processes: (1) mutual monitoring, mimesis and the diffusion or transposition of practices across organizations; (2) theorization, codification or the endorsement of best practices by professional associations; and (3) interventions by states to ratify, redraw or reject field boundaries and emerging solutions (e.g., Strang & Meyer 1993). Yet both tend to neglect the origins of new ideas and practices as well as the sources of disruption, leaving key players and processes unanalyzed. However, in many canonical cases featuring isomorphism, the instigating shocks or motivations for adoption were the direct and deliberate results of social movements – municipal reformers and progressives fighting corruption in city government, civil rights activists demanding state intervention to end discrimination, and agrarian populists contesting corporate consolidation.

(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:651)

The story of consumer watchdoggery is similar to the previous story of recycling – of radical notions of citizenship and workers’ control being watered down –

 Rao (1998) shows how the consumer watchdog agencies and product rating schemes that are now taken-for-granted in the US were the product of consumer mobilization and contestation over whether scientific testing and the power of informed consumers should be blended with the role of labor, unionization and concerns about products. At first, consumer groups fought for two different logics of market reform, one that blended consumer advocacy with unionism and one that focused more narrowly on the consumer. But broader political dynamics eliminated the more comprehensive radical change frame from the path, segregating ‘consumer’ and ‘worker,’ and ensuring the dominance of a consumer-only impartial testing logic.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:652)

In a bit that reminded me very much of Octavia Butler’s extraordinary novel “Dawn”, the authors write

Research by Morrill, Creed, Scully and colleagues, and Moore on the institutionalization of alternative dispute resolution, domestic partner benefits, and public science likewise document how movements operate as forces within mainstream institutions, de-emphasizing confrontational tactics in favor of their role as mobilizers of multiple logics and as agents or vehicles for recombination, assembly, translation and diffusion.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:656)

Texas is trying to ban local bans on fracking.  That’s what states (and industries) do-

But the more peripheral, agrarian states proved more open to populist pressures, enabling agrarian and independent producers to assert statist regulatory measures in the insurance field, disrupt markets, and organize mutuals. Insurers tried to close off access entirely by suing in state and federal courts to void states’ rights to regulate insurance prices. Yet, that strategy backfired when advocates of regulation found an unexpected ally in the US Supreme Court, which opened the door for further intervention in states by ruling that insurance was ‘affected with a public interest’ and thus subject to the states’ authority.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:660)

And THIS looks fascinating, as a piece of clever proxying –

Ingram and Rao (2004) also think in terms of movements and counter-movements, but elaborate a different research strategy, analyzing the passage and then the repeal of legislation banning chain stores as indicies of populist mobilization and chain store countermobilization over the rise of new market forms. In this way also, the capacities of movements to promote change or new path creation rests not just on size, resources or movement strength, but also on the structure and dynamics of the political and institutional context.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:660)

They then turn to “measuring and modelling movements” which is extremely difficult of course.  Nice to see a distinction between movement strength and activity (p. 661) which needs further exploration.

They’re not practitioners though, and I think they underestimate the morale and stamina needed for social movements to stay ‘in the game’, and just how easily exhausted, diverted and co-opted they are.

Still and all, it’s all very very messy, and they are big enough to admit this –

Overall, the approach to movements and institutions that we advocate celebrates the heterogeneity of actors, multiple logics and practice variation. A focus on such multiplicity revises the isomorphic imagery of the canonical two-stage diffusion and punctuated equilibrium models (e.g., Tolbert & Zucker 1983). Such a perspective concentrates less on the contagion of unitary practices or a singular rationality, but rather on multiple forms of rationality that inform the decision making of actors in fields (Bourdieu 1984), and provide foundations for ongoing struggle and contestation. This conceptualization of institutionalization and fields as multiple, fragmented and contested (Schneiberg & Soule 2005; Washington & Ventresca 2004;Lounsbury 2007) is a crucial ontological starting point for a new wave and generation of institutional scholars.
(Schneiberg and Lounsbury, 2008:665)

There are a ridiculous number of articles in the bibliography that merit closer attention.  Here’s some

Frank, D.B., A. Hironaka and E. Schofer. 2000. Environmentalism as a Global Institution. American Sociological Review, 65: 122–127.

Ingram, P. & Rao, H. 2004. Store wars. American Journal of Sociology, 110: 446–487.

Minkoff, D.C. 1993. The organization of survival: Women’s and racial-ethnic voluntarist and activist organizations, 1955–1985. Social Forces, 71: 887–908.

Moore, Kelly. 1996. Organizing integrity: American science and the creation of public interest organizations, 1955–1975. American Journal of Sociology, 101: 1592–1627

Schneiberg, M. & Clemens, E.S. 2006. The typical tools for the job: Research strategies in institutional analysis. Sociological Theory, 3: 195–227.

Schofer, E. & A. Hironaka. 2005. The effects of world society on environmental protection outcomes. Social Forces, 84: 25–47.

Stryker, R. 2000. Legitimacy processes as institutional politics: Implications for theory and research in the sociology of organizations. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 17: 179–223.

Zald, M.N. & Berger, M.A. 1978. Social movements in organizations: Coup d’etat, insurgency, and mass movements. American Journal of Sociology, 83: 823–861.


Final paper is about something I sorta lived through – the successful-ish attempt to beat back GM food from Europe.
Shurman sets out her theoretical contribution as

This article analyses  how a new social movement against genetic engineering in agriculture managed to turn a major industry upside down. While the social movements literature has long recognized the importance of external context for the success of social movements, it has paid little attention to the institutional logic and features of targets other than the state. Here I argue that an undertheorized aspect of external context, namely, industry structures , is a primary factor explaining why the anti-biotech movement in Western Europe was so effective. As conceptualized here, industry structures are composed of economic, organizational, and cultural features, and function to enhance or constrain social movements’ efforts to change industry behavior. Bringing these structures into our purview and recognizing their significance for activist struggles can significantly advance our understanding of social movement efficacy in this age of globalization and increased corporate power.
(Shurman, 2004:243)

She identifies ‘four key elements of the industry/corporate environment that social movements face’ (p. 245)

These are;

  • The economic and competitive behavior of firms in an industry
  • The relationships among actors in an industry’s larger “organizational field” or system.

[Where fields are – In Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell’s classic formulation, an organizational field refers to “those organizations that, in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services or products” (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).]

  • Corporate cultures
  • The nature of the goods and/or services that an industry produces

Basically she says Monsanto basically stuck a big ‘kick me’ sign on itself, and the NGOs obliged.

an executive from the British biotech company Zeneca, Simon Best, flew to Saint Louis to meet with Monsanto CEO, Robert Shapiro. Drawing on his own experience introducing the first GM product into the British market (a genetically modified tomato paste), Best urged Shapiro to label RoundUp Ready soy before he shipped it to Europe, and to advise consumers it would be coming. At harvest time, however, Monsanto and U.S. grain processors ignored Best’s advice, combined the GM soy with conventional soy, and sent it to Europe unannounced and unlabelled (Charles 2001). According to one anti-biotech organizer, the activist community was outraged and interpreted Monsanto’s decision as purposely flouting Europeans’ desires to know what they were eating (Schweiger 2001).
(Shurman, 2004: 252-3)

I think she undersells the fact that we (the UK NVDA crew) seemed to have the wind at our backs, having just fought the roads industry to a standstill in the UK, and climate change hadn’t yet emerged as the big screaming buzzkill that it now is.  And we weren’t too busy summit-hopping yet to do some crop decontaminations.

Usefulness for my thesis:  Lots of rich pickings about the sorts of pressures companies do and do not come under (especially the consumer-facing links in the chain)

Usefulness for my ‘activism’: Arrogant American companies eh, donchajustlovethem (Monsanto, Peabody etc).  The difference is, everyone has an opinion on food and food quality, few people care how the electrons get to their fridge/plasma screen TV.  Food is personal in the way that the Keeling Curve isn’t. Hohum.

On “Open Space” and tosspots…

Marc Hudson has been to one too many event that describes itself as “open space”. The fightback starts here.[Update: here’s how he’d have done it]

The Evil Corporations and their Evil State lackeys are trying to defeat us!! They constantly steal our ideas, water them down, and then use them to sell their own very non-participatory and non-liberatory junk back to us. There are bars called “Revolution”, and rubber-stamp consultation processes called “participation”. It’s awful and wrong.

All this is true…. But we have met the enemy, and he or she is… us.

Every time you go to an event that claims to be using “open space” but is just the old system of an agenda but with time in the afternoon for the loudest people to try to get folks along to their “come listen to me spiel”, you are witnessing the co-optation and destruction of important ideas. But by “our” side, not the “enemy.”

Every time you witness it and fail to speak up, you are complicit in the watering down of an important tool, and in the creation of long-term cynicism and despair.

If we are not willing to challenge bad practice in our own culture, why should anyone listen to us criticise “mainstream” culture? Why should anyone – least of all ourselves – take ourselves seriously?

This article looks at what “Open Space” actually is and where it came from. It then turns to how the tool is being (ab)used, and then looking at why that is happening, what the consequences are and, finally – crucially – ‘what is to be done’?

Open Space

[UPDATE 13/11/2014; NOOOO!  The following account is just so inaccurate that it’s not even wrong.  See here for the actual story!]

Software engineers got bored and frustrated with turning up to conferences and being sat in rows and being talked at for hours by different people with crappy powerpoints. They got bored and frustrated with having to use the “gaps” in the programme to do what they actually wanted – which was to talk about the practical problems they were facing, and trying to find someone who might be able to help.

So they changed. Instead of a top-down scheduled agenda, they had everyone turn up with their “what I need help with/can help with” heads on. People who had an issue (problem!) they wanted to discuss wrote it on the top of a big sheet of paper. Everyone who was also interested in discussing that same problem wrote their name underneath as many of the papers as they wanted. While everyone else went for coffee the hosts figured out which problems were burning hot, and assigned bigger rooms to them.

Everyone came back from coffee, saw which spaces were set aside for which problems and set off on their own personal missions.

Crucially, if it turned out the problem got solved, or people in the group were being asshats, or for whatever other reason, you didn’t have to stay in the group you first chose any longer than necessary. Because, as well as the agenda being spontaneously generated (but then curated), the other key tool of “Open Space” is “the law of two feet.”  It says that you have two feet – one for learning, and one for contributing. If you find yourself in a situation where you are doing neither, it is your responsibility to respectfully go somewhere that you are.”

Normally, you would sit and stew and have the red mist descend, and then ben the wrong headspace when you do have a chance to be involved. But now you are free (and with great freedom comes great responsibility) to leave and take charge of your own experience, saving your own (often limited) energy and morale.

It. Works. Well.

So what has happened the last three occasions I’ve been to events from the “left” which have contained so-called “Open Space”?

The Tosspots have taken over, is what. Tosspots? Terminators of Open Space’s Subversive Potential.

Here’s how it’s gone.  The crucial first couple of hours get taken up with very very standard “this is our organisation, this is what we do, this is how great we are [“you should join/subscribe. Really. Here’s the form.] and here is our guest speaker(s) to tell you funny stories.”

So people set into the “I am here to be ego-fodder/to say my piece when asked” headspace. They are NOT able to get into their “I am part of a movement that is not winning nearly as many victories as it could be, as it needs to be” headspace. So when they “open space” bit comes along, they are in their “I want to advertise my group” rather than “I want to get other people’s help solving specific problems” headspace.

Instead of actually giving the responsibility for the day to the attendees (and turning them from audience and ego-fodder into participants), the organisers run a very standard meeting, with a specific period of time designated for “Open Space.”

Why do they do it?

The charitable explanation (assuming that many Tosspots mean well and aren’t brittle control freaks) is that they don’t know what Open Space actually is, and are just mimicking what they saw someone else do recently. Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance.

OR they do know, but they either had a failure of nerve, or were over-ruled as the agenda developed, and the label that was originally accurate has been left in situ.

The uncharitable explanation (and there ARE Tosspots who don’t mean well/are brittle control freaks) is that people are using the term as part of their “look at us, we’re cool and hip and cutting edge” marketing strategy. They are latching on it to the sexy new thing ; cool-hunters gonna hunt.

The short-term consequences

  • My blood-pressure goes up
  • Other people’s blood pressure goes up
  • The law of two feet gets invoked.

The long-term consequences

  • Open Space gets a bad rap/is misunderstood. The term gets hollowed out of meaning
  • People become cynical about it, and an important opportunity to improve the dismal quality of our meetings and events goes to waste.

What is to be done
People should make more strenuous efforts to avoid being Tosspots themselves.

And remember; “Friends don’t let friends be Tosspots”

And Non-friends don’t let friends be Tosspots. Here are two sample letters.

Dear xxx,

I see from the agenda of the meeting you are advertising that there to be an “element” of what you are describing as “Open Space.” I do hope you have read this rant about what Open Space is and isn’t. (links to this post!)

I’d like to remind you that you as an event organiser have a responsibility to tell the truth about what you are planning to have happen, so that potential attendees can make an informed choice about whether to use their limited time and energy coming to your thing. I’d also like to remind you that the use of labels matters a great deal. If what you are actually intending is “a bit of time for groups to advertise their existence on short notice” then please call it that, ‘kay?

Yours sincerely



Dear x,
I see that your event has a session in the afternoon called “open space.”
This is a travesty and you are actively destroying an important tool. I neither know nor care if you are doing it consciously or unconsciously. You should stop it now.
Open space is about helping people get help solving problems, not creating platforms for loud narcissists.

Oh, and if you are going to call your event “open space” are you going to run the ENTIRE meeting under the law of two feet. If not, why not?

yours in dismay